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Zen and the art of storytelling
It's hard to resist the soft watercolors that are the signature of Jon J. Muth's illustrations. A few years back, I was completely taken in by the illustrations that accompanied Karen Hesse's Come On, Rain! There was so much pure joy jumping out of his brush that the paintings made me feel a part of the scene as young girls ran through the raindrops of a much-anticipated storm in a hot city.
In Muth's newest offering, Zen Shorts, siblings Michael, Karl and Addy are playing on a summer day. They meet a large panda bear named Stillwater who has floated in on the current, held up by an umbrella.
"'I am sorry for arriving unannounced,' said the bear. 'The wind carried my umbrella all the way from my backyard to your backyard. I thought I would retrieve it before it became a nuisance.' He spoke with a slight panda accent."
Needless to say, Stillwater is no ordinary giant panda. He is a storyteller. The three stories he tells in Zen Shorts are Stillwater's gift to the children and to us, the readers. Gently philosophical, the stories are actually short meditations from two Zen traditions, Zen Buddhism and Taoism. In an accompanying Author's Note, Muth explains Zen and the origins of the stories. Even the name of the bear has a root in Zen, which values meditation and being still as key routes to understanding.
The three stories-within-the-story are meant to bring enlightenment, something like the parables in the New Testament. The short tales address the existence of good and bad luck, the nature of frustration and forgiveness, and the role of material possessions. Though the stories ask the reader to slow down and think about the nature of life, these are not morality tales. There is no summary sentence at the end to help the reader figure out what the story is trying to teach. However, there is a quiet tone that invites the reader to pause and think.
In Zen Shorts, Muth has created a lovely introduction to the habit of reflection that Zen encourages.